4 minute read 28 May 2020

How to harness the lessons of lockdown to reimagine work

By EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

4 minute read 28 May 2020

Much of work as we knew it has gone. And that's a good thing.

COVID-19 has forced many organisations to embrace progressive, empowering new work practices. Rather than rushing back to ‘normal’, we now have an extraordinary opportunity to look at what’s succeeded during lockdown and apply it to reimagine our workforces and workplaces as restrictions ease. In this new reality, we can become truly human centric. 

Workforce as a community – not just as job titles

In the past, people strategies were often applied by rank or business unit. In 2020, lockdown created a new set of categories: parents home-schooling; people living alone; Gen Zs living with their families; carers. Each of these groups needed different types of support to sustain productivity and wellbeing – and companies rallied to the cause.

Dedicated channels were set up where exhausted parents could lean on each other emotionally and share teaching resources. At EY, we partnered with educators and rolled out an online vacation program for kids of different ages. Leaders were encouraged to ask after and support those whose carer responsibilities or health situation restricted their ability to work.

Meanwhile, online forums emerged to combat loneliness and wellbeing check-ins sprang up, with managers keeping a special eye on those doing lockdown by themselves. We figured out new ways to help people feel connected, safe and valued.

What we were doing was thinking about our employees as individuals and making allowances for their human needs. As a result, most office-based companies across Australia flexed work to fit the shape of people’s lives where possible – rather than the other way around.

We need to keep doing this as we move out of recovery - starting with the person and their needs and preferences, considering work in a way that fits them. It’s a wellbeing and productivity opportunity well worth continued exploration.

Ending presenteeism

Before COVID-19, only a third of our workforce was working flexibly, with a tiny proportion working from home. There was a prevailing view in many quarters that work can only be done in the office; and that people will slack off if you let them work from home. New technologies, human ingenuity and the extraordinary achievements of hundreds of thousands of Australians in lockdown have proved conclusively that those old-fashioned notions don’t hold true for many roles. 

We expect more of our people to take up the work-from-home option and more leaders to be comfortable with that.

Meanwhile, “soldiering on” - coming to work sick - will no longer be seen as heroic. When we’re back in our socially distanced offices, people with even a whiff of illness will automatically work from home – no questions asked. And handshakes, hugs and kisses will disappear from office etiquette forever.

This change will not be temporary. Even if we find a vaccine for COVID-19, it’s likely only a matter of time before the next novel virus appears. Long after we open our borders, office health and hygiene will continue to be mandatory and keeping people safe will be the top priority for every industry – not just those sectors we typically identify as dangerous, like mining or construction.

Tailoring office presence

As offices re-open, we have a chance to reconsider the work day. It’s possible we will see organisations permanently stagger work times to both reduce density in office lifts and on public transport – and reduce stresses from peak-hour commutes.

It’s incumbent on us to better understand our people and provide some choice over how often and when they come into the office, rather than have people working in ways that are unsympathetic to their individual productivity drivers. Given the option, some people will come in around their family commitments and school pickups. Those who don’t do well with early starts, may arrive later. Others may come in early and leave around 3pm when their brain signs off. 

EY research with our own teams tells us that, of those currently working from home, approximately:


Feel a need to come back to the office – largely because they miss their teams


Are ready to come back when others do

Of those remaining, 25 percent don't mind when they return and 20 percent don't anticipate returning to the office at all. Those who do come back may be offered blended options, with a mix of work-from-home and office attendance. For those who miss their colleagues but suffer from a torturous commute, we can consider work-hubs in suburb clusters.

Research shows high performers tend to be those with a commute on average 35 minutes or closer to their office. No-one should be disadvantaged in their career because getting to the office is difficult.

Focusing on mental health to drive productivity

One of the most important lessons highlighted in this crisis is that business relies on the wellbeing of its employees as much as the patronage of its customers. With mental health increasingly on the radar, it’s clear that productivity is dependent on the confidence employees gain from knowing their employer is taking steps to keep them safe.

In future, as well as training managers to identify and respond to mental health risks, we need to design our workplaces to support different workstyles and honour why people are actually there. For those who come to the office to connect, we need more spaces for shared interactions rather than just the traditional task-oriented spaces.

Open-plan designs must also incorporate thinking spaces where people can disconnect and have time to let their brains unpack complex ideas. After days of back-to-back video calls during lockdown, most of us have realised the importance of making space to do deep work. 

How do we keep the momentum going?

In our response to the pandemic we saw a huge amount of pro-social behaviour, with many people acting in the best interest of the community, united by a common ‘enemy’. As the crisis abates, we need to continue to harness and reward that behaviour to boost wellbeing and cohesion in our organisations.

Purpose will be so important. We need our leaders to articulate a unifying imperative to make our workplaces reflect the complex needs of human beings. Or there’s a real danger our muscle memory will drag us back to the old normal.

Alongside purpose, must also be inclusiveness. The crisis has yielded heart-warming stories of people rallying around the most vulnerable in our neighbourhoods and our businesses. In the same way, when we reimagine that workplaces of our post-lockdown world, no one should be left behind.

Our team

Kate Hillman, Oceania People Partner, kate.hillman@au.ey.com  


Much of work as we knew it is gone. And that’s a good thing. COVID-19 has forced many organisations to embrace progressive, empowering new work practices. 

About this article

By EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization